Another Woman Deacon Saint
by Kathryn A. Piccard © 2005
Published on our website with permission of the author
Over forty different women deacon saints are listed on the calendars of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and/or the Roman Catholic Church as deacons or deaconesses, and some of them are commemorated in Anglican Churches. Most of the forty were quite historic people, although a few of them are undocumented historically. A few others among the forty are considered historic people, but the historicity of their diaconal status is not as certain. To reach the number forty I counted not only the ones I had found, but also seven listed in 1998 by Kyriaki K. FitzGerald, (1)
I expect that a closer study of the works of Eisen, Osiek, Madigan, and Macy, and the upcoming work of White, will reveal other women deacon saints. At least two of these forty were African, with at least another celebrated in Africa by the Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. For example, Saint Denisa (or Dionysia, or even Denise), a martyr with Medius in Egypt is observed on April 8 on the Coptic calendar. She seems to have been very early, possibly living during the first century. It is not clear to me whether or not she was an African, but she is described as having been martyred in Africa with Medius.(2) Africa can claim her as one of its saints. Saint Domnika’s feast is observed on January 8 on the Coptic calendar.
In the third century St. Apollonia was an elderly deacon/ess martyred in Alexandria, Egypt, where she apparently served her ministry. Although I have never seen her listed on eastern calendars, she has been widely listed on western calendars and has been fairly popular in the west. She is famous as the “patron” of dentists and those with toothaches, because her teeth were bashed out as part of her sufferings just prior to her death. Then she jumped on the pyre prepared for her and was burned to death.(3) Another African saint, Augustine, commented on her death, justifying it as not being suicide, but proof of her choice to die in witness to Christ. She is celebrated on February 9.
Saint Justina (or Just) was a fourth century abbess in Carthage, in North Africa, (or possibly in Nicomedia, in Bithynia in modern day Turkey.) Her legend has far-fetched features, but that does not address her historicity. Her day is October second.
There is an additional woman deacon saint who was in a group of 4,000 martyrs who are listed on Eastern Orthodox calendars, on at least one Oriental Orthodox calendar, and on the Roman Catholic calendar. Such large numbers of martyrs are often suspect as inflated, or copying errors, but in this case there is every reason to believe that the number is about right, because the horrifying number was widely attested at the time. The group of martyrs was also mentioned later in the Qur’an.(4) These martyrs lived in the first quarter of the sixth century(5) in the southern Arabian peninsula where Yemen is today. Among them was St. Elizabeth, a deacon who had ministered at the Church in the city of Najran. I learned about St. Elizabeth in Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, introduced and translated by Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey.(6) It is certainly possible, in fact it is even likely, that there were other unnamed women deacons among the 4,000 martyrs of Najrân. From the time of the slaughter these martyrs have been commemorated in Africa, Syria, and elsewhere.
As part of a larger power struggle between the Persian empire and the Byzantine empire, a regional military force besieged the city. The promise of safe passage made by the besiegers was broken, and Christians were given the choice of conversion to Judaism, or death. Many martyrs took refuge inside a Church which was burned. Others were martyred over subsequent weeks as the invaders hunted them down. Descriptions of the martyrdoms were written immediately after the massacre both for political purposes, urging military revenge, and for hagiographical purposes.(7) The material about deacon St. Elizabeth is in one of these historically reliable documents from that era which had been lost but was recently discovered, as described in 1971 by Irfan Shahid in The Martyrs of Najrân: New Documents.(8) The deacon St. Elizabeth was tortured several ways rather than renounce her Christian faith, then she was dragged to death behind a wild camel released to run into the desert. The tracks were later secretly followed and her body was recovered.
The martyrdom documents for the group were widely translated and circulated, the typical elements of saints’ cults developed,(9) and the group of saints soon appeared on numerous Church calendars. They were canonized by the methods of their day. I use the title “Saint” for Elizabeth because she was included in the group that was canonized.(10) Although the work of Brock and Harvey reports the translation of martyrdom documents into the languages of some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (including Syraic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Armenian), among the calendars of the different Oriental Orthodox Churches I have only checked the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopic Synaxarium lists the martyrs of Najran on the 26th of the third month (Nov. 7 to Dec. 6).(11) The Eastern Orthodox calendars have long commemorated St. Aretas and the Martyrs of Najran on October 24th.(12) The name Aretas is transposed from Banu Harith, the leader of the Christian resistance. The saints were added to the Roman Martyrology (the Roman Catholic calendar) in the sixteenth century by Cardinal Baronius, also listed on October 24th, despite the fact that the Najranites were probably technically Monophysites, since the Ethiopian Church was then largely Monophysite, and hence considered heretical.(13) While the Najrân martyrs are not named on any Anglican calendar, Anglicans can use the Common “Of a Martyr” in the Book of Common Prayer if they wish to observe the day, or to focus on St. Elizabeth in particular.
This St. Elizabeth is not named in any liturgical texts that I know about, presumably because she is only one of 4,000 martyrs, and because the document with details of her individual martyrdom was lost for so long. But just as the nineteenth century Russian Orthodox nun Taisiia wrote liturgical texts for the feast of St. Simeon the God-receiver,(14) although his feast already had texts, perhaps it is time for someone to write some texts for this St. Elizabeth’s feast day.
It is pleasing to be able to identify another in the long list of faithful woman deacon saints, especially one who can be respected and celebrated by people in different Churches. How many more women deacon saints will be identified and publicized, based on liturgical, hagiographical, and/or historic research? How long will it be before some new women deacons are added to their number?
Brock, Sebastian P., and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, introduction and translation, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.
Budge, E. A. Wallis The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, 4 vol.s, Cambridge University Press, 1928. Reprinted Hildesheim, New York:Georg Olms,1976.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, October volume, edited by Peter Doyle, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Burns & Oates, 1996.
FitzGerald, Kyriaki Karidoyanes Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998.
A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, London: S.P.C.K., 1945.
Meehan, Brenda, Holy Women of Russia: the Lives of Five Orthodox Women Offer Spiritual Guidance for Today, San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Piccard, Kathryn A., Research on Women Deacon Saints: an introduction with an annotated bibliography MA: privately published, 1975, revised 1983.
Shahid, Irfan, The Martyrs of Najrân: New Documents, Subsidia Hagiographica 49, 1971.
Webography: www.copticchurch.net accessed November 18, 2009.
(1) FitzGerald, Kyriaki Karidoyanes Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998, especially chapter 3, “The Witness of the Women Deacon Saints,” and Appendix A, “A Partial List of Women Deacon Saints,” which listed 29. All of those identified in my prior work are included in her work. She lists Saint Junia the Apostle of Romans 16:7 as a deaconess, upon no justification which I can discover, although I have been studying the history of the cult of St. Junia for decades. She does the same with several other biblical women, although St. Phoebe of Romans 16:1-2 has ample justification for being listed as a deacon. See Piccard, Kathryn A., Research on Women Deacon Saints: an introduction with an annotated bibliography MA: privately published, 1975, revised 1983. The Rev. Teresa Joan White, CSA, has identified 7 other women deacon saints to me so far over a period of several years, and I have found at least 5 others myself.
(2) One source says in English that she was “appointed” by the Apostles, but I wonder if a more accurate translation for the word translated “appointed” would be “ordained.” Budge, E. A. WallisThe Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, 4 vol.s, Cambridge University Press, 1928, volume III, p. 805; Holweck, F. G., A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints, with a general introduction on hagiology. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1924, p. 278. www.copticchurch.net under the 13th of the month of Baramouda, second entry, accessed November 18, 2009. “The Apostles” for the Eastern and Oriental Churches included at least 83 persons, that is, the Twelve, the Seventy, and Paul. This is one of the saints I discovered during my research.
(3) See Paul Burns, ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, new full edition, February volume, Collegeville, MN: [& Burns & Oates], The Liturgical Press, 1998, pp. 86-87, and note the references cited, and Acta Sanctorum, Paris: 1643-1910, February volume 2, pp. 277-282.
(4) Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition, October volume, edited by Peter Doyle, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Burns & Oates, 1996, p. 169. Unfortunately this entry in Butler’s does not reflect the extensive work of Shahid, or Brock and Harvey. See Sura 85 of the Qur’an, where those guilty of the massacre are condemned to hell.
(5) Brock and Harvey, op. cit., discuss dating problems, and on pages 103-104 conclude that the massacre took place in 518, 522 or 523.
(6) Sebastian P. Brock, and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, introduction and translation, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987, available in paperback and hardcover. See especially chapter 4, pages 105-107, the bibliography on pages 190-191, and the map opposite page 1. There is an updated edition with a new preface, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Arabic edition, Cadmus Publishing and Distribution (in conjunction with the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo), Damascus, 2000 Romanion edition, Editura Sofia, Bucharest, 2005
(7) Hagiography means writing about saints, in this case writing with an eye toward their future canonization.
(8) Shahid, Irfan The Martyrs of Najrân: New Documents, Subsidia Hagiographica 49, 1971.
(9) Shahid, ibid.., and Brock and Harvey, op. cit., at various places describe the development of these typical elements in detail: relics, liturgical texts, feast days, Church dedications, pilgrimages, and martyrdom stories.
(10) Among the different spellings to be checked are these: Saints Arethas (Al-Harith), Khîrût, and/or Elsebaan, of Nâgrân or Arabia or Najran orNajrân.
(11) Budge, E. A. Wallis The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, 4 vol.s, Cambridge University Press, 1928, pages 289-93. St. Elizabeth is not named among “the men (sic.) of Nâgrân and Saint Khîrût their father” on December 2.
(12) Orthodox calendars may list “St. Arethas and those with him” or “Arethas (Al-Harith) the Great Martyr, and his companions, 533 (Arabia),” as in A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, London: S.P.C.K., 1945, p. 86.
(13) Butler’s, 1996, Oct., op. cit., p. 169. They are listed as “St. Aretas and the Martyrs of Najran and St. Elsebaan.” Butler’s remarks that “the Ethiopian Church was largely Monophysite in its official doctrine,” but that Baronius may have “decided that the palm of martyrdom excused what was probably no more than technical heresy anyway.”
(14) Taisiia, who herself may be headed for canonization, wrote the words and music for an akathist hymn about 1877 while she lived in the Zverin Protection of the Mother of God Convent, and the Synod approved her work, making it part of the official canon for Simeon’s feast day. See Brenda Meehan, Holy Women of Russia: the Lives of Five Orthodox Women Offer Spiritual Guidance for Today, San Francisco: Harper, 1993, p. 116.